A painful attitude

Last week I mentioned Dr Sarno’s work in the context of my auto-immune disease and the intermittent flare-ups of pain and stiffness it brings.

My experience matches others’ accounts of the link between their pain and their broader psychological state: my pain seems to be associated with a self-imposed pressure to perform, to go faster, to get more done, or to be more responsible, more in control.

Sarno’s theory is that such expectations enrage us on a subconscious level, and we create the pain to distract us from what we consider to be inappropriate emotional responses. I’m not sure if this mechanism applies fully to my circumstances, but the expectations definitely play a role.

For example, when I lost my job a year ago I decided to see how far I could push my freelance writing. Things were going well for a few weeks, I felt confident and had dramatically increased my output. Then the pain set in. I ignored it for as long as I could, and in hindsight it’s remarkable that I managed – or wanted to – ignore it at all.

Eventually I realised what the problem was: at some point I had quietly decided that the solution to my employment problems was to write prodigiously and without ceasing. “Decided” is perhaps a bit of an understatement; it’s more like I subconsciously committed myself to that path, with a determined disregard for the consequences. It felt like a gut-level conviction that “This is what I have to do.”

Altogether it took a few weeks from the onset of the flare-up for me to stop ignoring the pain, remember the general psychological theory, work out the specific cause, and reverse it.  In this instance, fully reversing it meant recognising that the amount of work I was doing was not sustainable in the long-term, that the amount of money we needed to survive was much less than I had expected, and that imposing such pressure on myself was simply counter-productive.

I’ve found that this method neutralises the acute lateral pain of a flare-up so long as I genuinely reverse the underlying attitude. However, the long-term medial stiffness and occasional pain has not been responsive to these efforts. I’m working on a resolution for these chronic symptoms, but will have to save it for a later post.

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